Dr. James Andrew Smith, Electrical and Biomedical engineering professor at Ryerson University, Toronto, is very excited about experimental changes he made to his teaching approach in class. He introduced tools and methods that help students generate knowledge through interaction, explore the subject better and create a more in-depth understanding of the subject. He calls this an “inductive approach” to learning rather than the traditional “deductive approach”. He considers MapleSim – the system level modeling and simulation tool from Maplesoft - as a key inductive learning tool, very different from deductive learning tools.
Dr. Smith introduced MapleSim in the third year Electrical Engineering program, in classes focussing on an introduction to robotics and microsystems. One goal of these classes is to familiarize students with tools for analysis, simulation, visualization and design. He used the system-level modeling tool MapleSim to see how an inductive approach to learning can improve student comprehension. “An inductive approach allows students to explore a system, and derive equations from the behaviors they observe in the system,” explained Dr. Smith. “Contrast this with the deductive approach, which is the traditional way of teaching, that involves giving students a set of equations and letting them deduce what it means and what kind of behavior it demonstrates. The inductive approach enables knowledge generation through interaction and pushes the students to explore further.”
According to Dr. Smith, traditional tools have their place, but they don’t let the students see under the hood, which is an impediment to learning. “What makes MapleSim different from others is that students can ask MapleSim for underlying equations and interact with it in different scenarios. This openness is very unlike other tools in the market. With MapleSim, students can easily connect the analytic models in textbooks to the numeric solutions that result from the simulation. It also has a very intuitive user interface which makes it easy for students to explore the software and arrive at new conclusions.”
As an illustration, Dr. Smith provides a simple topic dealt with in the third year engineering program. A very fundamental concept all students deal with in the electrical engineering class is the subject of operational amplifiers. It is important for students to tie in how an operational amplifier modulates a signal or how it amplifies/attenuates a signal, and any simulation package used has to be able to facilitate a very clear understanding of this concept. Traditionally, the instructor would refer to a standard text book like “The Art of Electronics” and give students the golden rules of operational amplifiers and tell them how current goes into certain ports and not other ports and why voltages should be of a particular value. The students are then asked to solve the circuits by hand. “There is a lot of potential for error here,” said Dr. Smith. “It is a lot to ask of the students especially if they haven’t had any experience with electronics, and it is difficult for them to figure it out in a short amount of time.”
Alternatively, Dr. Smith’s inductive approach gives them MapleSim. He gets the students to start by drawing the schematic, and then simulate with MapleSim. He then makes them extract the underlying equations in MapleSim, explore it using different scenarios, and analyze the equations to derive conclusions. “The best part of this for students is that they can match it with what they are seeing in their textbooks,” said Dr. Smith. “The simulation process they go through is the same as they see in the text book. It reinforces what they read and provides a nice link between what they do on the computer and what they see in the textbook.”
In addition, Dr. Smith takes the use of MapleSim further by extending basic examples in the textbook to show students more useful real life illustrations. This expands the scope for students and they are encouraged to think beyond the limited span of a particular problem. Because of MapleSim’s system-level approach to multi-domain systems, students often extend a problem in electrical engineering to what they learn in their mechanical engineering class or instrumentation class. “To me this is the real power of MapleSim,” added Dr. Smith. “Because of its possibilities in multi-domain modeling, it beats other software tools that are similar. It provides students with a familiar environment to work with, and helps them relate problems and examples in different fields to get a comprehensive view.”
Dr. Smith is convinced that MapleSim is a critical tool in an engineering instructor’s toolkit because it facilitates inductive learning, which, he believes, is the paradigm of the future.